Scientific Consensus on Cognitive Ability?

Written by: Stephen Hsu

Primary Source:  Information Processing

From the web site of the International Society for Intelligence Research (ISIR): a summary of the recent debate involving Charles Murray, Sam Harris, Richard Nisbett, Eric Turkheimer, Paige Harden, Razib Khan, Bo and Ben Winegard, Brian Boutwell, Todd Shackelford, Richard Haier, and a cast of thousands! ISIR is the main scientific society for researchers of human intelligence, and is responsible for the Elsevier journal Intelligence.

If you click through to the original, there are links to resources in this debate ranging from podcasts (Harris and Murray), to essays at Vox, Quillette, etc.

I found the ISIR summary via a tweet by Timothy Bates, who sometimes comments here. I wonder what he has to say about all this, given that his work has been cited by both sides :-)


[ Click through for links. ]

2017 has already seen more science-lead findings on cognitive ability, and public discussion about the origins, and social and moral implications of ability, than we have had in some time, which should be good news for those seeking to understand and grow cognitive ability. This post brings together some of these events linking talk about differences in reasoning that are so near to our sense of autonomy and identity.

Twenty years ago, when Dr Charles Murray co-authored a book with Harvard Psychologist Richard Herrnstein he opened up a conversation about the role of ability in the fabric of society, and in the process made him famous for several things (most of which that he didn‘t say), but for which he, and that book – The Bell Curve – came to act as lightning rods, for the cauldron of mental compression of complex ideas, multiple people, into simpler slogans. 20 years on, Middlebury campus showed this has made even speaking to a campus audience fraught with danger.

Waking Up
In the wake of this disrupted meeting, Sam Harris interviewed Dr Murray in a podcast listened (and viewed on youtube) by and audience of many thousands, creating a new audience and new interest in ideas about ability, its measurement and relevance to modern society.

Vox populi
The Harris podcast lead a response in turn, published in Vox in which IQ, genetics, and social psychology experts Professors Eric Turkheimer, Paige Harden, and Richard Nisbett responded critically to the ideas raised (and those not raised) which they argue are essential for informed debate on group differences.

And that lead in turn lead to two more responses: First by criminologists and evolutionary psychologists Bo and Ben Winegard, Brian Boutwell, and Todd Shackelford in Quillette, and a second post at Quillette, also supportive of the Murray-Harris interaction, from past-president of ISIR and expert intelligence research Professor Rich Haier.

And that lead to a series of planned essays by Professor Harden (first of which is now published here) and Eric Turkheimer (here). Each of these posts contains a wealth of valuable information, links to original papers, and they are responsive to each other: Addressing points made in the other posts with citations, clarifications, and productive disagreement where that still exists. They’re worth reading.

The answer, in 2017, may be a cautious “Yes, – perhaps we can talk about differences in human cognitive ability”. And listen, reply, and perhaps even reach a scientific consensus.

[ Added: 6/15 Vox response from Turkheimer et al. that doesn’t appear to be noted in the ISIR summary. ]

In a recent post, NYTimes: In ‘Enormous Success,’ Scientists Tie 52 Genes to Human Intelligence, I noted that scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the following claims:

0. Intelligence is (at least crudely) measurable
1. Intelligence is highly heritable (much of the variance is determined by DNA)
2. Intelligence is highly polygenic (controlled by many genetic variants, each of small effect)
3. Intelligence is going to be deciphered at the molecular level, in the near future, by genomic studies with very large sample size

I believe that, perhaps modulo the word near in #3, every single listed participant in the above debate would agree with these claims.

(0-3) above take no position on the genetic basis of group differences in measured cognitive ability. That is the where most of the debate is focused. However, I think it’s fair to say that points (0-3) form a consensus view among leading experts in 2017.

As far as what I think the future will bring, see Complex Trait Adaptation and the Branching History of Mankind.

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Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu is vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. He also serves as scientific adviser to BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and as a member of its Cognitive Genomics Lab. Hsu’s primary work has been in applications of quantum field theory, particularly to problems in quantum chromodynamics, dark energy, black holes, entropy bounds, and particle physics beyond the standard model. He has also made contributions to genomics and bioinformatics, the theory of modern finance, and in encryption and information security. Founder of two Silicon Valley companies—SafeWeb, a pioneer in SSL VPN (Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Networks) appliances, which was acquired by Symantec in 2003, and Robot Genius Inc., which developed anti-malware technologies—Hsu has given invited research seminars and colloquia at leading research universities and laboratories around the world.
Stephen Hsu

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